U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio promised Wednesday he will push for increased doctor reimbursements for Medicaid and Medicare as part of a package to bring Puerto Rico’s federal benefits in line with states.
Rubio, a Republican member of the bi-partisan, bi-cameral Congressional Task Force on Puerto Rico Economic Growth, met with an invited group of 20 Florida-resident Puerto Rican business and political leaders gathered in Orlando to seek suggestions on what the task force should push for from the federal commission overseeing the restricting of the territory’s finances.
There, Rubio promised to back those reforms and others, including tax credits to assist the people on the island in dealing with the economic crunch that is near bankrupting the government, straining services and decimating health care options as doctors flee the island. But he did not agree with everything suggested, notably as he defended keeping the 96-year-old Jones Act that regulates shipping to and from the island.
“I’m very confident that is going to be one of the recommendations that we’ll offer,” Rubio said of increasing Medicare payments to doctors so they can be encouraged, first, to serve Medicare patients, and second, to not flee the island seeking more money. “And I am hopeful it will make it into the task force’s document.”
The roundtable-style meeting, which featured Republican state Reps. David Santiago, Rene Plasencia, and Bob Cortes, a few representatives of Puerto Rican chambers of commerce and bar associations, and a few other business groups, and former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Coello Novello, was officially a congressional meeting, not a campaign event.
Rubio is seeking re-election against U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of West Palm Beach. And he later acknowledged the importance of the Puerto Rican vote for him, or Murphy, to win Florida. And Rubio contended that he’s worked for six years on Puerto Rican issues, accusing Murphy of “just discovering Puerto Rico three weeks ago.”
Rubio offered no talk of financial bailouts and promised no deals that would put Puerto Rico’s government and people ahead of stateside investors when it comes to getting paid.
Instead, Rubio said the goal is to remove as many federal impediments as possible to open the island up for business investment, which he said is key to expanding the economy, wages, and taxes to fund the government.
“What can we do, what changes can be made in the federal government, to make the island a magnet for investment?” Rubio inquired.
He also said that ultimately Puerto Rico’s long-term status — remaining a U.S. territory, becoming a state, or becoming an independent country — must be decided as soon as possible, before it can offer the long-term sense of stability investors are looking for.
The task force Rubio was appointed to — along with Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — is to make recommendations by mid-December to the Puerto Rico Oversight Board, a board created by Congress this past summer that will act as executor in restructuring the island government’s debt and finances.
Rubio said many Republicans have been opposed to increasing payments to the island because they are fiscal costs to the federal government. But he said they must understand hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the island for Florida and elsewhere to seek better health care and services, and in particular there is a brain drain of doctors and other professionals, so those fiscal costs would not be new, just moved from the states, if they can entice people to stay.
“It’s OK if people want to move. It’s not OK if people have to move,” Rubio said.